Kung fu masters have come up with many teachings that sound poetic but are extremely practical. For instance, people who practice Chen style tai chi say, “Don’t hit. Kick with your hands”: have a complete connection between your sole and your fist. It goes along with a Yang style tai chi saying that is a bit more explanatory: “All movement is rooted in the feet, controlled through the waist and expressed in the hands,” or one of the core principles of every style of tai chi, “If one part of me is moving, all parts of me are moving. If one part of me is still, all parts of me are still.” The endless hours of horse stance practice from external martial arts styles and standing qigong (zhan zhuang) from internal styles are not just to make one’s legs stronger and alignment better, but also to teach students to feel the connection between all parts of their bodies, how extra tension in the calves translates to imbalance that makes them hold their shoulders more tightly and painfully. The training even reaches further inside the student’s body, teaching him to breathe with more coordination, as in the “microcosmic orbit” breathing from the external styles or “back breathing” from the internal styles. Some Ba Gua students even claim to be able to control the operation of their internal organs. To these students, everything must work together, even, ultimately, autonomic function.
If you are negotiating with someone and your mind is spinning in a million directions, your distraction provides an opening for your counterparty to step in. Your arguments are not cogent. You do not project calm confidence. You forget facts and mix up conversations. Your constant retreats to your phone screen signal disrespect. While it is wrong to see the outcome of every discussion as either win or lose, if you are scattered, you are setting yourself up to lose. Do not be like the tai chi student who merely waves her hands around without the internal connections, whom the masters describe as “scattered and confused.” It is not a new age concept to learn to focus better!
Similarly, if you are speaking on behalf of someone else – whether it is your company, your employer or a client – it is your responsibility to make sure that the chain of communication and decision making reaches as far back as it has to. That way, you speak with the strength of the whole rather than just for yourself. If a company can say, “We hear you, but after consideration this is how the Board has decided to go,” it has much more strength than, “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we can do that.” All the parts of the organization should work together, or else, like the student struggling in a horse stance, some part is going to start complaining.
Realistically, this sort of integration and coordination is more an aspiration than a requirement. No person is focused all the time and no organizations work coherently all the time. As calm and grounded as you may feel on Tuesday, by Wednesday things may change. However, if you mirror the kung fu master, who finds something to improve every time he practices, the effort will pay off. In the meantime, like the student holding an uncomfortable position, find ways to strengthen the situation. Work on communications within your company and lobby your boss to get buy-in at all levels on your issue. Learn to use interpersonal cues to look like you are focused and attentive, and it will strengthen your connections. Take up yoga, tai chi, other martial arts or something that connects your movements. These small steps add up.
At a conference on Collaborative Law last week, I had the pleasure of attending a session on Aikido and Conflict Resolution by Judy Ringer, a consultant and practitioner from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (www.judyringer.com). It was great to see someone else picking up on some of the same connections I’ve been writing about here. Even though her approach was different than mine, some of her core lessons, like centering and redirection, were the same. Keep up the good work, Judy!
I knew one or two of the other participants who had studied martial arts. Most had not, so it was interesting to see what appealed to them:
- First was the “secret ninja” aspect. People thought it was cool to be learning anything about martial arts. Truth be told, most of us had that before we started training! I hope it whet some people’s appetites. A couple of people said to me afterwards that they had always wanted to learn an Asian fighting system.
- Redirection is the essence of Aikido and plays a large role in many of the Chinese internal martial arts. It is a hard skill to learn in pure martial arts training and it is really hard to teach in an hour to people with no background. Talking to other participants afterwards, some felt enough of an internal connection to start to relate it to dispute resolution techniques. Others not so much, although all were impressed with the Aikido demonstration and philosophy.
- Being centered seemed lost on many. I think they were confusing the concept of physical centering with its new-agey equivalent. The reality, as all martial artists know, is that physical centering (perfect physical alignment) can lead to psychological centering. See my posts on Listening and Standing, Part 1 and Part 2.
- Being rooted was something people grasped immediately. Can I push you over or not? This crowd, experienced in conflict resolution, felt in their bodies what it meant to be rooted. I may add that to my repertoire when it comes to my own conflict resolution practice. Is there an ethical way to have people in conflict do something like Tai Ji push hands? What if they already have a relationship that might provide some built-in limits?
- People didn’t want to just have the experience. They needed to talk about it. One of the other participants, Prof. Robert Kubacki, who co-chairs the Civil Committee of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council with me (www.massclc.org/civilcollaborative), thought it might have to do with the distribution of Meyers-Briggs “S” and “N” types in the room. This crowd was over-weighted in the “ST” department, which suggests that a mix of concepts and hands-on experience was the best way to teach them.
I’m thinking about following in Judy’s footsteps and offering presentations on Kung Fu Mediation – making sure to allow time for a facilitated discussion about it afterwards! Please back-channel me if you have any thoughts on the topic.
People respond to verbal conflict the same way they do to physical conflict. The same adrenaline starts to flow and our minds even adopt some of the same strategies. Being aware of these strategies is one of the essences of Kung Fu Negotiation. Whether you are sparring with your fists or with words, there a handful of basic principles:
1. To the extent you can, pick your battles.
2. Know your goals: why are you fighting?
3. Do not get hit. Block, avoid or redirect.
4. Learn to take some punches since you can never be sure you will be able to follow Rule #3. For instance, in external kung fu styles, there is “iron body” training, and in internal styles there is “iron bell.” In life, there is learning to be more thick-skinned.
5. Simultaneously block and strike. Every time someone comes after you, they leave themselves open, somewhere, somehow. This is one of the first things that beginning kung fu students are taught: it is dangerous just to block because eventually a punch will get through. In a difficult conversation, even if you are not always on the offensive, you should be prepared to be.
6. Create an opening. If someone’s guard is up, take it down. If someone punches at you, reach around the punch to hit him in the ribs. If you want to persuade people, think about whether to engage their objections directly or find a way to work around them.
7. Pick your target. In a physical fight, there are a number of spots that are good to aim for, and a number that are not. It may be better to aim for the stomach than the shoulder. In a really nasty argument, it may be better to slap your counterpart down than to engage on his terms.
8. Don’t overextend. You leave yourself off-balance if you punch too hard in a fight and exposed if you put too much on the table at the wrong time in a negotiation. It is even true for disclosing information.
9. Take care with your anger or other strong emotion. If it motivates you, it can be your friend. If it blinds you, it can be your enemy. Acknowledge it but be careful before embracing it.
10. Always be aware of your adversary. Do not look away. Anticipate his moves. Stay connected. In a negotiation, look for his actions and reactions. Be aware of when to be persuasive, when to push, when to connect, when to take a step back.
11. Always be aware of yourself. In a physical fight, know your strengths, weaknesses, body position and balance. In a difficult conversation, know your flash points and honestly evaluate your ability to be persuasive under pressure.
12. Decide how much damage you need to inflict to achieve your ends. Do not exceed that amount. For instance, if you are talking to an employee, you probably do not need to crush her. In most conversations, de-motivation is not your goal.
13. It is best to live to fight again another day. If you cannot win, find a way to withdraw safely. Gracefully concede the point. Restrain your ego.
14. Remember that withdrawal can be a strategic prelude to an attack. If your adversary sees weakness, it may draw her in, giving you the space and time to set up the right attack. It is OK to lead with a question.
It is good not to get hit.
If someone punches at a kung fu master, the master has many choices. He can block the punch, redirect it so its energy is harmlessly dissipated, strike back at the same time he is protecting himself, trap the punch momentarily while he lashes out with a kick, lock the puncher’s elbow, wrist or shoulder joint in order to immobilize and control him or even use the energy of the punch to throw the puncher across the room. He can also be somewhere else when the punch arrives, a so-called “yin” block. There is no shame or cowardice in not taking a blow. It is OK to duck if you know your next step. As long as the punch does not reach you, you are safe.
For the negotiator, the situation dictates the nature and level of your response. Sometimes it is better not to engage. For instance:
- Faced with a situation in which you are eventually going to lose, it may be better to postpone conflict for as long as possible.
- When someone is trying to bait you by engaging in personal attacks or otherwise pushing your personal or organizational buttons, it may be better to ignore the behavior than to ramp things up.
- When your counterparty is agitated, it may be better to let him tire himself out or become more annoyed rather than trying to negotiate with him in that state.
- When your counterparty is a moving target, it may be better to let him settle into a position before you respond.
- When your counterparty is not in a strong enough position to do damage or merit a response, it may be the best use of resources just to keep an eye on the situation.
- When you are waiting for external circumstances to turn more favorable, it may be better for you to postpone an exchange.
So, where does that leave our fearless negotiator? After avoiding conflict, does he stand his ground? Does he strike angrily at his counterparty? Does he do like Sir Robin in the movie Monte Python and the Holy Grail:
“Brave, brave Sir Robin/Bravely ran away/Away, away, away he ran/Oh, brave Sir Robin!/When danger reared its ugly head/He bravely turned his tail and fled/Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about/And gallantly he chickened out ….”
The answer is easy. Use the time in which you have not engaged to position yourself to respond. Whether you are thinking about the best response, marshaling organizational assets, dealing with internal organizational politics, letting your counterparty dig himself a hole or even preparing a better escape hatch, you may be able to improve your negotiating position for the next round of talks.
It is a mistake to confuse doing nothing with being ineffectual. Sometimes, stepping out of the way is the best thing you can do.
The kung fu master must size up his opponent. One of the things he looks for is how the opponent is likely to attack or respond. In the Shaolin five animal-five element system, the way a person’s body moves and his or her innate approach to conflict drift toward certain of the animal archetypes. People are leopards, snakes, tigers, cranes and dragons in different measures. Each animal is associated with one of the five traditional Chinese elements: wood, earth, fire, air and water, respectively. It’s not just for kid’s movies! People follow the same approaches in negotiation. You can learn to pick up on it.
Air and earth are opposites, yet connected. There is a well-known martial arts legend about a kung fu master’s observing a fight between a snake and a crane. The crane struck and the snake coiled out of the way, then the snake struck and the crane brushed it out of the way. The master went on to develop techniques that mimicked the animals.
In conversations, people who channel their inner crane often prefer to evade sharp, unpleasant truths jabbing at them, even as they politely lance out themselves. When they do engage they may prefer to stick to abstractions, principles and the big picture. We see this often among mid-level businesspeople from certain Asian countries. It is something their culture has selected for. People who are channeling their inner snake, the predominant type among mid-level American businesspeople, may prefer details. Listen to whether people are using inductive or deductive reasoning, whether they work from concepts and apply them to real-world situations (crane) or work from details and use them to build concepts (snake). These two types may sound like they are speaking together, but they are really speaking two different languages. In the world of money, think of economist and manager: the perspective from which they discuss dollars is very different.
As a concrete example, think of a discussion within a manufacturing company about whether to expand a certain aspect of the business. One person speaks in generalizations of corporate strategy and macroeconomics. If the generalizations sound internally consistent they may indicate the way she thinks, but if not they may be like patches holding together an argument based on interests that are yet to be revealed. Someone else goes right to the numbers, or the practicalities of a staffing issue. The first speaker’s connection of the decision to the corporate mission statement seems to elude him. It may be hard to hear coherence amidst the detail, but one can listen for whether the details are obfuscation tactics or that person’s actual understanding of the situation.
Many of us have encountered similar contrasts in family arguments. Listen for words like “always,” as compared to a concrete focus on detail: “You’ve always acted like you don’t care about _____, so why are you bringing it up now,” versus, “I remember a Tuesday night four years ago when I came home from work and you said very clearly, ‘_________.'” While both charges may be redirection or misdirection tactics having nothing to do with the real concerns, they may also reflect actual ways of thinking.
Different walks of life attract different personality types in different cultures. Listen for the patterns. Being able to read the person sitting across the table from you will help you in your next negotiation. It can also help you manage the conflict that can arise from different ways of thinking and speaking.
Did you know that Bruce Lee was nearsighted? He started off studying a martial art that specializes in close-in combat, Wing Chun, so he could keep fighting even if he lost a contact lens. Since one of his legs was shorter than the other, he often kicked with the longer leg to extend his reach. Since he was not a tall man, he chose techniques that did not rely on domineering size and worked tirelessly at developing his physical power. By preparation, he turned weakness into strength.
Nobody is perfect. No situation is perfect. When conflict happens, how do we handle the fact that we are probably not in an ideal place to resolve it? Maybe some of these circumstances sound familiar:
- You are nervous at having to confront someone or angry at being confronted.
- You want or need more than you think you are likely to get.
- Someone else – a boss or a spouse, maybe – wants you to achieve something in the conflict. The extra pressure makes you feel like just a mouthpiece.
- The other party seems to hold all the cards.
- The other party’s personality grates on your nerves.
- There is unreasonable time pressure to reach a resolution.
- You feel drained even thinking about the conflict.
One of the things you can do, like Bruce Lee, is to prepare. You can turn each of these entirely reasonable concerns into a source of strength. For instance:
- If your natural inclination when you are nervous or angry is to rehearse the situation ahead of time in your head, then when the time comes for the difficult conversation, you will have thought through the permutations. You will be in a better position to control your nerves and your anger. Link that adrenaline edge to your thinking.
- If you think you cannot get something from a negotiation, remember the words of the martial arts teachers: when you punch, picture punching through your target so you do not slow down right before contact. Trick yourself, if you have to, to be sure you are not holding yourself back.
- If your boss is pushing you to do unreasonable things, or your spouse is not willing to listen to the other party’s reasoning, you have a second confrontation going on with the people on your own side. Address them, and your side becomes stronger.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. If you have no room to bargain, get creative. If the car dealer refuses drop the price further, get it to throw in the mats for free.
- If someone’s personality grates on your nerves, your personality probably grates on his nerves, too. If you can control yourself, you might be able to use his irritation to keep him off balance.
- Time pressure is a two-edged sword. While it adds stress, it puts limits on the discussion and forces the participants to move forward toward resolution rather than getting hung up. You can use the pressure to help your counterparty over a hump.
- If you are tired of fighting, you are ready for resolution. As you get more practice thinking about everyday negotiations as a kind of conflict, you get more fortitude to continue discussions. As you exercise your abilities, you learn to outlast your counterparties, and that gives you an advantage.
What at first seems like a weakness may actually be a guide for how to use your strength.
Here’s a martial arts secret that is not really so secret: each movement in a form can have more than one application.
In Tai Chi, for instance, it is said that each movement has at least four applications: a block, a strike, a joint lock and a throw. Take the famous “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” for example. As you shift your weight to your right foot, your right hand waves slowly across your face, then moves in a circle downward as you shift your weight to your left foot and your left hand comes up to wave slowly across your face. Block a punch to the face? Sure, as your hand comes up and across. Strike your opponent’s face? Sure, if you’re close enough. Joint lock? It slips directly into one called “Dragon Holds A Ball” in external forms. Throw? Create the joint lock and keep the circular energy going around and down to the ground, following your counterpart’s body.
Different negotiators and different mediators have different styles. No one style or application of that style is the “right” one all the time. If you figure out your own style and master it, though, you will be able to pick and choose your approach to a given challenge, the way the kung fu master might use a block or redirect in one context but in a more violent one fling an opponent face first onto the floor.
Take our hypothetical Tai Chi negotiator. As he is sitting in his conference room, someone across the table makes a ridiculous demand.
–The block: He can swat it away and dismiss it, then go one with the conversation. It would be the “you don’t need that, let’s move on” approach.
–The strike: He can counter with an equally ridiculous demand, setting up what negotiation theorists call a positional bargaining situation rather than an interest-based negotiation. His strike will be followed by a block and possibly a counteroffer. “A thousand dollars? Maybe a hundred at most.”
–The joint lock: He can engage in a substantive discussion and try to pin his counterparty down. Talking smoothly, the noose tightens.
–The throw: While seeming to draw his counterparty into a substantive discussion, he can flip the ridiculous offer into something that embarrasses his counterparty into concession. Wait for the counterparty to tap out.
All this takes mastery. It is easy to say, “Talk smoothly,” but actually being able to do it is a significant skill. It is easy to say, “Flip that jerk across the table onto his face,” but it is at least as hard to do that figuratively as it is to do it literally. Think about it in your next negotiation. If you are wearing a mediator’s hat, think about guiding the parties into the right negotiating modes. Chances are, they will already be in a block-strike pattern when they walk through the door.
If you come to the table with the mindset of a kung fu master, you will know what to do.
Sorry, this is a strange post, even for an offbeat blog like this one!
I’ve recently come across a couple of articles suggesting that the origin of martial arts lies in ancient shamanistic practices rather than the practical need for self-defense. For instance, there’s this article on “Shamanism and the Origins of Martial Arts,” and this article on “The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi.” The latter article begins by describing how much a “spirit dance” by a shaman of the Ka-ren tribe in Thailand reminded the author of tai chi.
These ideas are interesting, particularly since the shamanic roots of Daoism are well-accepted in academic literature. As all you kung fu masters and other readers know, Daoism has played a key role in the development of tai chi and other martial arts. The way most of us practice, though, the ideas are a bit of a stretch – but if you feel like you are channeling a noncorporeal snake during training, who am I to argue? Teachers have been telling me for years to figure out how to BE a leopard, so I hope somebody gets it even if it eludes me! The fact that this is an often-used teaching method suggests that there is something to it, even if you are not a member of an animist tribe.
As an armchair anthropologist (who actually spent some time among the Ka-ren, a long time ago), I wonder how this carries over to daily life. If a modern person negotiates with the intense, quiet focus of a snake, is he engaging in the contemporary equivalent of a shamanistic spirit dance? Does the answer vary culturally, depending on whether that person is a woman in Boston or a man in the Philippines? It would make a nice research paper for someone.
With some mediators I know, the answer is clearly closer to yes! The Wikipedia definition of shamanism states, “Shamans act as mediators in their culture” (mediating between the living and the spiritual world). The Association for Conflict Resolution has a Spirituality section. Many mediators are explicitly motivated by religious ideas – I can name half a dozen people who have expressed this to me in terms their own backgrounds, as pastoral obligation, doing God’s will on earth, healing the world, etc. Some of these people are incredibly effective.
If this sense is a motivation for your work as an advocate, negotiator, mediator or even arbitrator – whether you want to BE the tiger or BE the balancing point – you can take it to the next level. Try adding in some physical elements, like those the shamans use. Kung fu training may give you an archetypal boost.